Looking for Sophie Brown: a collaboration with Margie Orford and Sophie Brown

Through curator Emma Bedford, novelist Margie Orford approached me early in 2008 about a novel she was planning, which would feature a young artist called Sophie Brown. Orford had seen my exhibition Euphemism at the Iziko South African National Gallery in 2005, and on the basis of that work, believed I would understand Sophie’s motivations. In that first meeting where we talked non-stop for close on three hours, it became clear that Sophie would have to have a real life. It wouldn’t do to simply try and describe her or her work. In Margie’s story, it is Sophie’s work that reveals the truth about a crime. Her work would have to be researched and made, and then shown as an independent body of creative research and investigation.

For the last 18 months, we have been meeting regularly to develop the complexities of Sophie’s character as well as a plausible time frame and context in which the novel unfolds. In September 2008, I was invited to participate in a series for SABC2 called Right Through the Arts, in which an artist’s process would be revealed through a ‘reality’ style challenge to make a new motion-picture work in five days. I opted to activate my collaboration with Margie, in which I would try to create a portrait of Sophie, a visual impression of a significant moment in her personal history and my own. This resulted in Trauma Diorama 1: The Quarry, in which I pursue Sophie through textual clues found in the city. Caroline McClelland shot some exquisite stills on location, a selection of which have been turned into a photographic portfolio.

The overall project is ambitious and multi-layered, taking the form of a short film, novel, an exhibition and a ‘novelogue’. This last feature is a unique, hybrid object with no precedent that we know of. The closest is Sophie Calle’s Double Game, a post-fact publishing of works referred to in a novel by Paul Auster as being the personal rituals of a character called Maria. Our novelogue is intended as a limited edition artist’s book, extending the mass-market paperback narrative through Sophie’s own memoirs, and including all research and reference material regarding the creation of Sophie’s exhibition.

Kathryn Smith | Cape Town 2009